It has been a while since we heard anything about progress on another of Auckland Council’s key rail projects: a rail link to Auckland Airport from Manukau and Onehunga. The agenda documents for Wednesday’s board meeting of Auckland Transport highlight that quite a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes over the past few months – analysing at a broad brush level which transport solutions are needed in this corner of Auckland in the short, medium and longer terms. The result is a fairly short, but quite informative report that is probably backed by a much larger study that will hopefully also be released to the public in the fairly near future.
The study made the following conclusions:
– Packages incorporating rail connections in the airport corridor will be the most effective in delivering the project objectives in the long term
– The Rail Loop package would provide the best network resilience and highest benefits, while the package associated with a rail connection to the South is the most economically efficient
– The rail options would be expensive compared to a package incorporating bus services operating mainly on the existing state highway network, however the latter option is likely to be much less effective in the long run
– However, the packages are not mutually exclusive and the way forward is likely to be a combination of more than one package, involving a progression between the different elements of the packages over the study period. For example, the
improved public transport services might initially be started using buses on the existing state highway network, with a rail connection to the South or North being added later, ultimately leading to the completion of the rail loop as demand continues to grow.
At first glance they seem to be a fairly logical set of conclusions. The ultimate goal is, of course, rail connections to the airport from both Manukau and Onehunga. Without both links the line can never really function as a proper southwest rail link, connecting people from all over Auckland to the employment hub of Auckland Airport (and its surrounds) as well as offering extremely time competitive trips from the Airport to the city, Newmarket and other important nodes.
But at the same time it’s also pretty clear that this is a project that can be staged, and it’s likely to be sensible to adopt such an approach. Just as I think Puhoi-Wellsford is a road that should be staged (starting with a Warkworth bypass and safety upgrades, then seeing what problem is left after they’re implemented) it makes logical sense to stage development of rail to and around the Airport. The first step is obviously running better bus connections in the area – aimed at people who work at the airport as much as those travelling between the airport and the city centre. It seems crazy there’s no regular bus link from Onehunga to the airport, for example.
While the full “rail loop” (why are we always so obsessed with loops?) will require further investigation to determine its exact alignment, a broad overview of what’s proposed (including station location) is outlined in the map below: Once again at first glance there seems to be some logic to both the alignment and the station location – although I imagine with the alignment there will be some changes, probably mostly to bring it closer to the state highways and therefore minimise the amount of property that needs to be acquired (and limit the damage to Mangere). What is quite clear from this map is the potential for the line to really revolutionise this part of Auckland, offering a really high-quality transport option into the industrial estate around Auckland Airport (as well as the airport itself), but also offering Mangere and Mangere Bridge high quality transport links to the rest of the city. Mangere would seem ripe for comprehensive redevelopment as a model transit-oriented development, for example.
In coming to the conclusion that what’s highlighted above is the best eventual transport solution for the area, the study looked a number of different options.
Package 1 – Rail loop. This would comprise rail links from the airport through the northern corridor and southern corridor (connecting to the existing passenger rail network at Puhinui and Onehunga), plus the common elements (state highway, arterial road and local transport improvements)
Package 2 – Light rail to north. This would comprise dedicated light rail link from the airport through the northern corridor to Onehunga (connecting to a light rail network running into the CBD or to a rail station at Onehunga), plus the common elements (state highway, arterial road and local transport improvements)
Package 3 – Busway to north or south. This would comprise dedicated busway from the airport through the northern and southern corridor connecting to the existing bus and rail networks through interchanges, plus state highway, arterial road, and local transport improvements.
Package 4 –Rail connection to the south. This would comprise a rail link from the airport through the southern corridor connecting to the existing passenger rail network, plus State highway, arterial road, and local transport improvements.
Package 5 –Rail connection to the north. This would comprise a rail link from the airport through the northern corridor connecting to the existing passenger rail network, plus State highway, arterial road, and local transport improvements.
Package 6 – Bus lanes on the motorway shoulder. This would comprise express bus services from the Airport through the northern
corridor and southern corridor using motorway hard shoulders, plus state highway, arterial road, and local transport improvements.
Package 7 – Rail or dedicated busway through Otahuhu. This would comprise rail or busway links from the Airport through the eastern corridor, plus state highway, arterial road, and local transport improvements.
Each of the seven options were run through an initial assessment of their effectively at ‘tackling’ particular issues, and their alignment with broader goals, such as land-use change: Once again I guess there are no real surprises here. The most comprehensive (and expensive) option would have the biggest effect. The ‘cop out’ option of shoulder bus lanes would have very little impact. The more detailed economic assessments of the different options highlight something of a correlation between the level of cost and the level of benefit, although a few of the busway options probably start to drop out here because they’re expensive, but don’t provide the extent of benefit to justify their high cost. No actual cost-benefit ratios are provided, which is quite interesting: After looking at the cost-effectiveness and qualitative assessment of the various options, the study made recommendations on each of them – narrowing things down to four options, which would serve as something of a staged approach, shifting over time from a bus-on-motorway solution to an eventual full rail connection from both the north and east:
I had been somewhat worried that this study might end up somehow recommending a busway option. Now I have absolutely nothing against busways (bring on the Northwest Busway!) but if we’re fundamentally trying to achieve a “one seat ride at rapid transit quality” between the Airport and the City Centre, which is something I had always thought this project was about, then a busway simply isn’t going to cut the mustard. Where are you going to put it between downtown and Onehunga? In effect we already have half the line to the airport – it’s called the Onehunga Line, so it makes sense to utilise the existing infrastructure rather than duplicating it or having to compromise on a fundamental goal of the project.
Overall I am pretty satisfied with where things are at with this project. The next steps will look at more detailed alignments and integration with other transport modes, undertake a more detailed business case and comparisons with non-RTN options (which seems a bit weird as the route is a designated RTN in all the planning documents) and provide a way forward to the third stage, which should be preparation of designation documents so the route can finally be protected.